Bowery Flophouse by John F. Conn
Over the years, my relationship with photography has changed. I used to look at photographs and see them as images. More and more, I see them as stories.
This image by John F. Conn is a great example of this. The photograph could easily be discussed from compositional, lighting, printing, or even focal points of view. Perhaps that would be an interesting discussion, I don't know. But, I find I can't look at these two individuals without racing down any one of a dozen potential storylines. Are they brothers? Friends? Mere acquaintances? What brings the two of them to the bowery flophouse? Did they come together or meet each other here? What in their lives led them to this moment, captured on film some 40 years ago when Conn was working on this project?
Elsewhere, I've proposed that photography is all about relationships. With two individuals in the composition like this, the comparisons are enhanced. Look at the relative size of their hands — or for that matter, their heads. Some of that may be an optical illusion based on relative nearness to a wide angle lens, but I suspect not all of it. The fellow on the left seems so much taller than the other guy that their relative size seems real, not illusory.
Their size difference is also exaggerated by their posture and facial expressions. The fellow on the left seems more upbeat and even comfortable; the fellow on the right is reserved, almost timid. It's easy to interpret these differences as part of their relationship, too — protector and protected.
But, here is the real point — we have no idea because this is not a story, it's a photograph. That's the thing about this kind of picture: its story is manufactured by us based on the visual clues we see in the picture. Photograph-as-story is a kind of relationship between the photograph and the viewer. This is where I think I've changed over the years. In my youth, looking at a photograph was an exercise in photograph-making. How was this image lit? What compositional tricks did the photographer use that I might adapt to my own work? How does the printing and the tonal relationships enhance the images? What lens, what camera, what filters? These are questions a photographer asks, but only a photographer would think to ask. Unfortunately — at least as I look back at it now — such involvement with a photograph tends to suppress questions about the content, the story elements. Our minds are so preoccupied with deconstructing the technique that we miss the content.
Experience helps. With time, we can look at a photograph like this and sum up its technique fairly quickly — leaving time to ponder the story elements as they deserve. Not too unexpectedly, the more I find I engage the content rather than the technique, the more I appreciate what the photograph has to offer. Good photographs are not about photography — they're about life. Conn's image is a great reminder of that.
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